Research suggests that COVID-19 and its effects continue to affect Americans’ mental health: More than 42% of people surveyed by the U.S. Census Bureau in December 2020 reported symptoms of anxiety or depression — an increase from 11% the previous year.
According to Dr. Travis McNeal, associate professor of behavioral sciences, recent surveys have revealed an increase in anxiety and fearfulness, sleep disturbance, substance abuse and suicidality. Additionally, McNeal said when looking back at more recent, similar health crises such as the SARS outbreak of 2002, many people took on symptoms that mimicked those of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
“PTSD is when you have a traumatic event and then the repercussions of that event stay with the person even whenever it’s over,” McNeal said. “That’s what we saw in prior pandemics: They got afraid to get engaged in life because they thought, ‘Maybe this is gonna happen again,’ so they [withdrew and experienced] negative emotions … So we’re going to see some people on the backside of [the COVID-19 pandemic] that look a bit like they have PTSD.”
Dr. Lew Moore, chairman of the marriage and family therapy program and director of the counseling center, said that much of the problems arising point to how people were made, including their neurobiology of needing to be around other people and have social circuitry.
“The fascinating thing about us is we can have a difficult day … and we can encounter a friend, and they can give us a hug or a kind word and we can calm down — it has that effect on us,” Moore said. “So I am most concerned about the isolation piece.”
Dr. Steven Choate, associate professor of art and design, said he remembers the exact moment when he received news in March 2020 that Harding would not be returning to school. It was the Thursday of spring break, Choate said, and he was driving in Searcy with his son.
“Few pieces of correspondence of a general nature have hit me like that,” Choate said. “I don’t want to take it to an extreme … but it was sobering and, for me, a little frightening.”
Choate said he has dealt with depression on and off throughout his life and had other pre-existing circumstances and factors that made living through COVID-19 challenging.
Choate said to help him work through the circumstances he would send emails to students, letting them know he was there for them. Additionally, he would go into his office nearly every day to focus and work — something Choate said helps ease negative emotions for him.
“I would come in and spend the whole day [in my office], and if you saw one or two people out on the front lawn, that was it,” Choate said. “My colleague — Greg Clayton, next door — he came in pretty much throughout all of that, and that was wonderful because there were times when I felt like I was on the moon. It was so quiet and so lonely, and I wouldn’t go back and relive those months for anything.”
Choate said that while he is naturally introverted and more reserved, this experience taught him how much he needs people.
“We’re inherently very social beings,” McNeal said. “We want to connect with others. We were made to connect with others, and so isolation is incredibly harmful.”
Moore said the volume of people visiting the counseling center has increased this year. He said he could not say for sure all the exact causes of and correlations with this. There are a number of outside stressors, Moore said, but COVID-19 could be the primary stressor.
“The hope is we will develop some resiliency,” McNeal said. “Even if we get to [the] worst-case scenario, we now feel like we can conquer it: If we have to isolate, if we have to social distance, if we have to mask, we can do that for a while and then conquer whatever the challenge is and come out on the other side.”
Moore said when people are able to interact with others, it contributes to their worldview and allows them to gain different perspectives and understandings of what is happening around them. He said his advice for people to be able to engage in this kind of interaction and stay away from anxious thinking patterns would be to stay connected and communicate with some regularity. Moore said it is important for people to refrain from retreating into themselves during challenging times such as these. On the other side of the spectrum, Moore said it is also crucial for people to check in on friends and family, especially those who are distressed. Checking on people takes on a whole new meaning now, Moore said.
“For me at least … when I’m in the wilderness experience, all I can think about is my immediate fears and failings and hopes and concerns,” Choate said. “It’s only after I get through that, that I have the perspective of hindsight, and I can see how God’s strong hand was with me and has helped me.”
The University counseling center is available for in-person and virtual sessions. They may be contacted at 501-279-4347 or firstname.lastname@example.org.